10 Facts About Steven Spielberg’s Duel

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A Steven Spielberg movie, made in the 1970s, about an unstoppable force and the regular American guy trying to stop it—no, we’re not talking about Jaws. In 1971, the legendary director was just a twenty-something directing TV shows and looking to break out with his first movie gig. He eventually found it in the TV movie Duel, about an anonymous truck driver stalking a hapless businessman driving around the lonely canyon roads of California.

Duel, which is filled with thrills and road rage, was the precursor to Jaws and effectively launched Spielberg’s career. Here are some things you might not know about the Golden Globe-nominated thriller.

1. THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson based his original novella, which first appeared in the April 1971 issue of Playboy, on an actual road rage incident. Matheson had played a round of golf on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his car ride home, and in a daze after receiving the terrible news, he was ruthlessly tailgated by a truck driver.

Matheson initially pitched the idea to TV producers but, after it was rejected numerous times, he decided to put his real-life incident into prose form. In order to gather details of the open road, Matheson set out from his home in Ventura, California with a voice recorder in hand and simply described what he saw. Those descriptions of the desolate landscape ended up in the novella.

2. IT WAS STEVEN SPIELBERG’S SECRETARY WHO DISCOVERED RICHARD MATHESON'S STORY.

Spielberg got his start directing for TV at the age of 21, helming episodes of such shows as Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. But the aspiring filmmaker was desperately searching for a property he could turn into a feature film. It was Spielberg's secretary, Nona Tyson, who found Matheson’s story in Playboy and first sent it to her boss to potentially adapt into a movie.

“I started laughing because she's giving me a Playboy to read, and she said, 'Don't look at the girls, read the short story. It is right up your alley,'” Spielberg said. “She had a real intuition about me, and not since my own mom had anybody really had my number. She really understood my tastes, and my ambition, and my fear, my anxiety about wanting to do everything by Thursday morning.”

Tyson helped track down whether the movie rights to Matheson’s story had been optioned, and eventually discovered that a teleplay was in development at ABC and Universal with producer George Eckstein. Spielberg took a meeting with Eckstein, and brought a rough cut of his legendary 73-minute series premiere episode of Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” Eckstein was impressed, and gave Spielberg the job to direct Duel after a follow-up meeting where the filmmaker laid out how he envisioned the film from Matheson’s screenplay in full.

3. DENNIS WEAVER’S WORK WITH ORSON WELLES GOT HIM THE LEAD IN DUEL.

For the lowly protagonist, David Mann, Spielberg hand-picked character actor Dennis Weaver because he loved his performance as the jittery and feeble hotel night manager in Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil.

Weaver drove more than 2000 miles while shooting his scenes, and did many of the stunts himself, including the dangerous phone booth scene at the "Snakerama" gas station in a single take.

Of working with the rookie director, the veteran Weaver later said, “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to judge him because of his age. Let’s see what he does.’ And he did extremely well ... I really think it’s one of the most creative jobs he’s ever done.”

4. THERE WAS A CASTING CALL FOR THE TRUCK.

Matheson's script stated that the villainous, unnamed truck driver would never be seen besides the insert shots of his arms and boots. (Weirdly enough, Matheson’s novella actually names the driver: “Keller,” Matheson’s own spin on the word killer.)

Since the truck itself is the movie’s main antagonist, Spielberg chose to cast it like he would any other actor: an in-person audition. The filmmaker auditioned seven different styles of semi-trucks on the Universal backlot, finally settling on a 1955 Peterbilt 281 because he felt that the split windshield, rounded lights, and elongated hood represented the menacing features of the truck’s “face.”

For Mann’s car, Spielberg chose the relatively small red Plymouth Valiant to stand out in size and color from the enormous truck and the earth tones of the California landscape.

5. CAREFUL PLANNING AND LOW-BUDGET CAMERA TRICKERY HELPED CAPTURE THE HIGH-SPEED CHASES.

Spielberg was given just $400,000 and 10 days to shoot Duel, but the schedule ballooned into a full 13 days to shoot the entire movie after the rookie director fell behind. To save time in shooting the high-speed chases on location in California's Soledad Canyon, Spielberg strategically set up multiple cameras along a single stretch of road to capture the shots needed for multiple scenes in one take. He had the camera turned 180 degrees and the cars driven in the opposite direction to get multiple shots for additional scenes.

Instead of creating individual storyboards, Spielberg mapped out the entire path of Mann and the truck driver on a mural of drafting paper with notes about each plot point peppering the sheet.

6. A FEW VERY FAMOUS CAR MOVIES MADE DUEL POSSIBLE.

To capture the truck and the car at seemingly high speeds, Spielberg shot each at low angles. To create those harrowing shots, Spielberg borrowed the specially-made camera car from the 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, which could lower the camera to only 6 inches off the ground.

Spielberg also enlisted 50-year stunt veteran Carey Loftin as his stunt coordinator. Loftin, who played the driver, also designed the legendary car chase sequences in Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and The French Connection.

7. SPIELBERG ONLY HAD ONE SHOT AT THE CLIFF CRASH.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Spielberg only had one take to pull off the climactic cliff crash because the initial shoot only had a single truck at their disposal. (A backup truck was built during reshoots in case the engine of the main truck stopped working. The backup truck is now owned by classic car restorer Brad Wike, who is based in North Carolina.)

Loftin rigged the truck with a dead clutch so the 18-wheeler could drive without anyone behind the wheel. Spielberg filmed the crash with seven cameras from multiple angles to be able to use some editing tricks to stretch out the scene.

As the truck rams the car over the cliff and falls off in the final film, there is a low roar sound effect that the filmmaker included to emphasize the death of the truck. Spielberg, who wanted the truck to seem Godzilla-like, took the effect from the creature’s roar from the 1954 Universal monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon, and would go on to reuse the effect for the death of the great white shark in Jaws.

8. SPIELBERG HAD TO FIGHT TO NOT BLOW UP THE TRUCK.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the word “flammable” scrawled across the back of the truck, yet when it careens off the cliff at the end of the movie it doesn’t go boom. The studio wanted a big explosion, but the director wanted a slower demise for his film’s villain.

In an interview with filmmaker Edgar Wright, Spielberg explained, “[Producer] George Eckstein told me after the network saw it, ‘Well, we’re going back to the desert, they want to push the truck off the cliff again and blow it up again.' I told George why that was such a terrible idea. I’d worked so hard to give the truck a long and painful death and I thought that’s what the audience wanted out of the resolution. I said, ‘If the network does force you to blow the truck up again, you get another director to do it because I’m not going to do it.' George fought for me, and for himself because he agreed with me.”

9. SPIELBERG ADDED SCENES TO GET TO THE BIG SCREEN.

The movie debuted on November 13, 1971 as ABC’s Movie of the Week, and proved to be so successful that Spielberg was given the opportunity to shoot additional footage (the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene) to be able to release it in theaters at feature length.

10. SPIELBERG HAS REVISITED DUEL MORE THAN ONCE—AND PEOPLE HAVE STOLEN FROM HIM, TOO.

Duel was something of lucky charm once Spielberg’s career began to take off, and he’d continually reference parts of the movie in subsequent films.

The Snakerama gas station seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's 1979 World War II comedy, 1941, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The two elderly people Weaver tries to flag down in a car also appear as helpless motorists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it wasn’t all good luck. Spielberg was not happy when stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break." The recycled footage was completely legal since the show was also produced by Universal.

Additional Sources:
Duel Blu-ray Special Features

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

15 Facts About Pee-wee's Big Adventure On Its 35th Anniversary

Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).
Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).
Warner Home Video

He may be a perpetual man-child, but Pee-wee Herman has been around for more than four decades (the character made his first appearance in 1977). His first feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, debuted in August of 1985. Since then, millions of people have no doubt pondered the question, "Does the Alamo have a basement?" The answer is, yes! Read on for more fascinating facts about Pee-wee and his big adventure.

1. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was originally supposed to be a remake of Pollyanna.

Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).Warner Home Video

Before the inspiration struck for the quest for Pee-wee’s missing bicycle, the writers planned on more or less remaking the Disney classic Pollyanna. Pee-wee would arrive in a new town in need of some fresh perspective, and by the end of the movie, he would have endeared himself to even the most curmudgeonly of the citizens.

2. The movie changed when Warner Bros. gave Paul Reubens a Schwinn.

Cast and crew members often take bicycles around studio lots to get from point A to point B. Reubens was given a 1940s Schwinn to ride while he was at Warner Bros. working on the movie script; he loved it so much he decided to retool the whole Pollyanna concept.

3. Pee-wee's Big Adventure is a retelling of Bicycle Thieves.

Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985).Warner Home Video

After the idea of Pee-wee as Pollyanna bit the dust, the script ended up turning into a “surrealistic reworking” of Bicycle Thieves, an essential example of Italian Neorealism that was given an Honorary Oscar and regularly shows up on every “must-see” film list. But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has its own champions ...

4. Pee-wee's Big Adventure made Roger Ebert’s list of “Guilty Pleasures.”

Though he never officially rated the movie, in 1987 Ebert confessed that it made his list of Guilty Pleasure movies:

“The movie is not just a strange little man acting goofy. Pee-wee has created a whole fairytale universe as consistent and fascinating as Alice’s Wonderland or the world of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of those movies like The Wizard of Oz, I think, that kids can look at in one state of mind while the grown-ups enjoy it on a completely different level.”

5. Paul Reubens fought to get a 26-year-old Tim Burton to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Although Paul Reubens had a long list of directors he wanted to work with, the studio chose one not on the list. Rather than go along for the sake of getting the movie made, Reubens put his foot down and refused to proceed. Shortly thereafter, one of Reubens’s friends mentioned a short film called Frankenweenie (the precursor to the feature-length movie that came out in 2012) by Tim Burton. Reubens was friends with Shelley Duvall, who was in the Burton film, so he gave her a call. She agreed that Reubens and Burton would make a perfect match, and the connection was made. “It was the biggest piece of luck early on in my career that I could have had,” Reubens later said.

6. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's first collaboration.

Not only was Pee-wee's Big Adventure Tim Burton’s first big movie, it was also Danny Elfman’s. Elfman wasn’t actually scoring films at the time, at least not on the scale that he is now. But Burton knew him through his work with Oingo Boingo, and Paul Reubens knew him from music he had written for a film called Forbidden Zone. After meeting with Burton to chat about the project, Elfman went home with a tune in his head.

“I did a demo on a four track tape player, playing all the parts, and I made a cassette and sent it to him and never expected to hear from him again," Elfman told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. "But that piece of music became the main title of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and it got me the job. I was really shocked.” It was, of course, the beginning of a longtime collaboration and friendship.

7. Elizabeth Daily, a.k.a. Dottie, is the voice of Tommy Pickles.

In addition to acting in front of the camera, Elizabeth Daily is also a talented voice actress. If you don’t know her as Tommy Pickles in Rugrats or Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls, you’ve probably heard her in a number of small roles in Wreck-It Ralph, Happy Feet, and many, many more. She was also on season 5 of The Voice.

8. Tim Burton has a cameo in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Tim Burton made a cameo in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which you can watch below:

9. Warner Bros. thought Pee-wee's Big Adventure was weird.

After seeing the finished product, the studio wasn’t so sure it wanted to put much more money behind Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Finding it all a bit bizarre, they decided to roll the film out slowly and on a regional basis. When it proved to be popular with even a limited audience, Warner cranked up the publicity machine. By the time all was said and done, Pee-wee had earned nearly $41 million at the box office.

10. Phil Hartman co-wrote the script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Reubens and SNL legend Phil Hartman originally developed the Pee-wee character when they were in the Groundlings together. HBO picked up Pee-wee for a comedy show in 1981, which is what eventually led to the movie in 1985. Hartman was Reubens’s writing partner throughout all of that, and also for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he made occasional appearances as Kap’n Karl.

11. Pee-wee’s bicycle from Pee-wee's Big Adventure was sold on eBay in 2014.

Though Pee-wee estimated his bike’s value at “a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars” in the movie, it didn’t quite fetch that much when it was sold on eBay in 2014. It did, however, sell for $36,600.

12. There were at least 10 bikes used in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Warner Home Video

Missed out on the auction? Never fear—there could still be an authentic Pee-wee bike in your future, since at least 10 bikes were built for use in the film. The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh had one of them on display for a while.

13. Pee-wee's Big Adventure wasn’t the first time Paul Reubens did the “Pee-wee Dance.”

He performed it on The Gong Show in the late 1970s, but the choreography goes back even further than that. The dance, he has said, was actually inspired by a dirty joke his dad used to tell. “The joke was something [like] you put one thumb in your [Reubens points at his backside] and one in your mouth, and then you switch.”

14. The idea for Pee-wee's Playhouse came up at the Pee-wee's Big Adventure premiere.

Executives at CBS approached Reubens’s manager at the movie's premiere and wanted to know if “Pee-wee” was interested in doing a cartoon show. But Reubens had another format in mind, and asked how they would feel about something live-action.

“I was thinking about how important all those kids’ shows were to me when I was a kid, and how much I feel like they affected me, and that just seemed really exciting to me," he said. "I was really excited by the idea that doing a real kids’ show could potentially affect kids in an amazingly positive and great way.” Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted a year later.

15. Large Marge almost got the axe from Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the entire movie, but it almost didn’t make it to the screen. “I almost cut the best thing before an audience saw it,” Burton said in Burton on Burton. “It was a special effect and those are the first things to go.” IFC lists the scene as #5 on their list of "25 Scariest Moments in Non-Horror Movies."